Building bridges instead of walls

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While some want to build walls to Mexico, a local Whidbey woman is building bridges.

As a followup to our Dec. 29 story in This is Whidbey: Be here now for this sewing bee, women have since gathered on Friday afternoons to stuff, sew, crochet, and embroider life-sized newborn dolls for a teaching project in Chiapas, Mexico. From Jan. 5 to Feb. 1, the dolls took form, culminating in a blessing of lullabies and celebration with visiting volunteers from Compañeros ed Salud. At the sewing bees, held at Create Space Langley, one found juicy women in a creative frenzy, sharing their stories, skills and bonhomie. 

Two women holding handmade brown cloth dolls with black hair

Gretchen Lawlor and long-time friend Anne Zontine celebrate the making of 39 dolls.

Challenged to fulfill a promise made, Gretchen Lawlor, with a lot of help from friends, succeeded in making 39 dolls for rural Mexican teachers of women’s health.

Artist/astrologer Lawlor started the wheel turning last summer. “It began when I met a group of rural Mayan midwives gathered in a small town in the Sierra Madre mountains of Chiapas,” Lawlor wrote in an email. ”I was there caring for my grandnephew Luca while my niece Jessie and her husband Adrian volunteered as doctors in a local center of Mexican Compañeros en Salud (Partners in Health).

“Eighteen-month-old Luca and I often went for lunch at the office of Compañeros en Salud, and had a chance to sit with young Latin doctors and nurses and hear about their work. One day community education specialist Paula Samuelsen mentioned wishing she had more dolls for a convocatorio (gathering) of midwives happening that weekend. I looked at the dolls and told her I figured I could make a couple more. Luca and I went in search of the materials–finding a cocoa-colored t-shirt in the used clothes market, a pillow full of stuffing, needle and thread and scissors. And when Luca napped or slept, I figured out a pattern, then stuffed and sewed them up by hand—all from memories of making Waldorf dolls when (my children) Aubrey and Morgana were young, here on Whidbey with my friends.

“Ah, those midwives, they are a whole story in themselves. At the gathering I watched their hands, wise from handling babies for so many years, tenderly handling the dolls as they shared techniques with each other and with the new young doctors and nurses. Their wrinkled flat feet in dusty old sandals. Each woman carefully tucking away every memento of the day in their bags as they prepared for the long journeys back to their communities. 

Convocatoria/gathering of rural midwives and health care workers. photo shared by G. Lawlor

“As we said our good byes, three midwives came to me, each one asking if they could have a doll to use with patients, and twice I apologized, explaining that the dolls would have to stay in the center so everyone could share them. At the third request, I found myself saying, ‘Well, I do have a group of great friends back on my island. I bet we could do it’ and I said we could probably make one for each of the women at the convocatorio. Turns out there were a few more that hadn’t been able to come, and so we would need to make 38 dolls. I texted my friends Anne and Penny back on Whidbey, and they both said, ‘Yes, we want to do it!’”

Assuring Paula Samuelsen she was going to get 38 dolls made, Lawlor returned to Whidbey and began to make good on her promise.

The Jan. 5 gathering for the public was preceded by months of conversation and getting the project organized.

Woman in red dress places form in soft doll body

The original Dolly Mama, Anne Zontine’s patience and skill added to the success of the Co-Madre doll making project

The original Dolly Mama, Anne Zontine’s patience and skill added to the success of the Co-Madre doll making project. Co-Madres are the Chiapas-area teachers.

It took time to figure out how they were going to do it. Long-time friends of Lawlor’s: Zontine, Penny Cabot and Autumn Preble were soon joined by Ronlyn Schwartz and Heidi Jefferson-Gloor, and even more women soon followed to design the dolls, gather the materials, offering willing hands to make them. 

To ensure flow in the month-long public sewing bee Zontine led the design process, looking to make a realistic life-sized doll with simple steps for volunteers with different skill levels. The doll-making materials needed to be inexpensive or donated, and resistant to the humid damp in the small communities where the dolls would be handled by the healthcare workers, young mothers and their families. They scoured second-hand stores, made prototypes, tried different materials, and fine-tuned proportions of heads to bodies to approximate the size of an average newborn to six-month-old Mexican infant.

“The process was fun because we did it together,” Lawlor said. “We eventually figured out that a man’s sock stuffed with soft fleece from clean used clothing or baby blankets made a great core head and body, which was then wrapped in stuffing. Everyone was on the lookout for bags of polyster/quilting stuffing that frequently showed up at the local second-hand stores. Knitters donated yarn to make hair, Paula Samuelsen found a friend willing to donate money for the yards of light cocoa-colored fabric we needed to match the skin of tiny Mexican babies.

“Anne, who had taught all of us, and hundreds of other women how to make dolls over the years, handled the dolls, even as she was sewing up little heads and bodies, with that same wise reverence that I had seen with the Mayan midwives.” Lawlor added. “Autumn Preble and Penny Cabot, both with experience in international projects, helped make the project relevant and easy to implement–with great ideas for outreach and further development. Ronlyn Schwartz was a talented craftswoman, quietly intense and very focused, a retired Waldorf teacher spreading her wings in this new community of women. Heidi Jefferson-Gloor, world citizen, ex-Waldorf teacher and nurse as well; Carrie Carpenter, healing from a badly broken ankle showed up and shared her wide experience with a group in a corner of the big table. She was always cracking jokes. Kristi Faure was rather shy, but a whiz at crocheting the tiny caps of black mohair for the dolls’ hair, so we tucked women in around her to learn from her quiet consistent devotion. There were faces that we could trust would show up every week, and those who would give what time they could take from work or families. “

Smiling woman in glasses with blue sweater holding the form of a doll

Autumn Preble, one of Lawlor’s long-time friends, jumped on board to make dolls for rural teachers.

The project was launched for the public on January 5 with a whole day-long open sewing bee at Create Space. Lawlor’s invitations to many friends made over more than 30 years of living on Whidbey brought women from many different parts of the Whidbey community together. 

“Forty women showed up for that first day!” Lawlor added. “We followed that meeting on Fridays from 3-5:30 at open sewing bees, eventually involving over 70 women.  It’s true that there were also hours and hours of behind-the-scenes work, fine tuning, repairing, redesigning, especially at Anne’s warm house in the Maxwelton Valley where she or her husband Don effortlessly and miraculously cooked us meals. Even their grandchildren became part of the project, sewing little dolls, blankets and pillows.

“Early on we realized the dolls needed to be completed in time to emerge by Candlemas, the first stirrings of spring, on Feb 1st. Everything we did seemed to have its own sense of perfect timing, thankfully as the hope of completing 38 detailed well-made dolls in such a short time was going to require a few miracles.

“During the month 15-25 women showed up every week; there were always new faces, curious to experience the buzzing excitement of this creative community,” Lawlor added. “We had invited anyone and everyone, and the swarming enthusiastic women dominated the atmosphere. We sat around a huge table (made of two, then expanding out three banquet tables). We always made a point in our invitations of letting people know they didn’t need sewing skills to participate. We had cutters and crocheters and stuffers and those who hadn’t taken up a needle in many years embroidering eyes and mouths. They learned by sitting next to someone who knew what they were doing. Everything was passed on experientially, we all found our place, passing on what we knew, in a living lineage. Eventually we got quite specific, with tape measures and sample models and Annie as quality control checking the firmness of heads, reminding us it was our own child self we were tending with our hands.

“Beginners joined me, learning to stuff socks just right to make good solid heads and torsos, something I discovered I was quite good at. I was constantly distracted, popping up, the hostess, cheerleader and spark to greet people at the door, to share photos and information about Compañeros en Salud in Mexico and our Co-Madres project. I showed them our gathering pile of completed dolls. I helped the always appearing new volunteers settle into the community, with its warm chatter and busy hands.”

Finally, all 38, and one more, were completed in time to celebrate Candlemas

Kneeling woman holding a soft baby doll with black hair

Ganette Copeland, “an absolutely dynamo fun person,” as Lawlor describes her, adds a doll to the gathering

Paula Samuelsen and another Compañeros en Salud friend Scarlet Huber arrived from Chico, California for the celebration. Gathered at the foot of a statue of Guadalupe, the Mother of Mexico, the dolls, each one with its own personality, made a moving tribute to the women’s work. A laminated photo of each Mexican Co-Madre recipient was tied by ribbon to each dolls’ ankle. As a blessing to the dolls and their future teachers, Lawlor asked the circle of women to hold the dolls they made, stand up and sing a lullaby or tell a story about their own experience as a mother, auntie or grandmother. That was followed by a blessing ceremony Lawlor learned while living in Mexico. Each woman was asked to kiss the head of the doll to her right and then her left. What followed was a wave of blessing/nurturing that traveled around the circle. It was heartfelt and powerful to be part of the group.

“I was invited to experience this tradition in the town where I lived in Mexico,” Lawlor said. “It’s a local custom that starts at winter solstice and ties into Christianity. They bless the Holy Child which becomes a symbol of the well-being of the family throughout the year.”

Afterwards friends Samuelsen and Huber returned home with one of the dolls secured in a womb-colored drawstring bag.

But the dolls are not going to Mexico yet.

Women singing

Friends sing a lullaby blessing at Feb. 1 gathering

“We realized that while we were so busy getting the dolls made, we needed next to figure how to get the dolls to our co-madres in Chiapas,” Lawlor added. “How to pack up 38 dolls safely, how to get them through Mexican customs and out to the women scattered throughout the mountains. Paula and Scarlet are working on that. We would like to make red bags that look like uteruses that the co-madres can use to keep the dolls protected and ready to go out on visits.”

Meanwhile, the original TIW story will be translated by Mrs. Jenny Gochanour’s high school Spanish class at South Whidbey High School so the story about the co-madres (“co-mothers “) here on Whidbey making the dolls could be shared with their Mexican recipients. 

“My kids have been in Jenny’s classes,” Lawlor added. “She’s a fabulous mover and shaker. Jenny wants us to come and talk about the project and share some of the experience with her kids, which sets me on fire. The article has been shared. They’re in the process of getting that done. I think that’s a wonderful way to get the kids involved.”

Brought up as a nomad, Lawlor said she feels incredibly loyal to Whidbey “I was sent back here from four great years in Mexico with a purpose,” she said. “I feel loved in Mexico. It resonates with me, I make sense there.  I moved there to live in a culture that daily celebrates the feminine culture. And Whidbey is the place I call home. When my dad (Peter Lawlor, now in his 90s, living in Clinton) goes, I hope to spend more time in Mexico, though he’s currently looking to live forever. I feel like I was sent back here to get this going. It’s so powerful. I needed, we all needed something that felt hopeful in such a time of confusion and grief.”

Brown cloth dolls with black hair

Many hands and hearts went into making dolls for teaching midwives through Compañeros en Salud, a volunteer program in rural Mexico

Meanwhile the doll-making project is reverberating out, with interest already coming from other volunteer organizations both locally and elsewhere. “We’re hoping to pass on our doll-making experience to others,” Lawlor said. “We’re exploring how what we have figured out and created might be used by other people.“

For more information, contact Gretchen Lawlor.

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13 Comments

  1. Dianna MacLeod on

    An uplifting story, told in the detail it deserves. Photos by David are terrific and convey, as does the text, a sense of the joy and camaraderie shared by the doll makers. Thank you both for helping readers see that Love and Stitchery may just save the world!

    • Kate Poss | With Photos by David Welton on

      Hello Dianna, It was a powerful heart-opening experience to be a part of this. I sincerely appreciate your words. –Miss Kate

  2. Bridget Maloney on

    Love this story! It reminds me of my Peace Corps experiences in the late 70’s at a rural health unit. They also gathered all the midwives for training and I was so impressed with their wisdom, strength and love.

    • Kate Poss | With Photos by David Welton on

      Yay! Glad you like it, Bridget. It was a powerful experience to write it and be a part of this.

  3. Kate (& David’s photos) really did Gretchen and the Co-Madres project justice with such a soul-filled article! I know Gretchen from her 4 yrs in central Mexico, you captured her same generous spirit, endless energy and creativity which she shared in abundance with our Mexican town’s local schools.

    LOVED reading all about the Woman of Whidbey’s unity and commitment, along with my dear friend Gretchen’s latest inspiration to help ‘make the world a better place’ no matter where she is. We sure miss her down here in Mexico but so encouraged you all are appreciating her up there!

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